Kid’s birthday parties have become like everything else kid-related these days—complicated. It’s no longer the good old days when parents invited only the number of kids for the age of their child (a four year old celebrating with four of his closest friends, for example). Today’s parties often involve every child in the daycare or school classroom, along with neighborhood kids and children of the parent’s friends. And long gone are simple sack races and egg tosses. These have been replaced with elaborate games related to the party’s theme, expensive party bags, and hired entertainment.

The pressure to throw the perfect birthday party has become overwhelming for parents. Children are excited to have a super-cool party like their classmates had, and good luck to those parents who want to do something small and simple. They will likely have a hurt and angry child to contend with.

Bill Doherty, a family social science professor at the University of Minnesota, decided to combat this trend with a research-based citizen action group called Birthdays Without Pressure. Doherty, who coined the phrase “overscheduled children” nearly a decade ago, joined with a group of friends and colleagues to start a national conversation about the phenomenon of increasingly over-the-top birthday parties.

Julie Printz, one of the founding members of Birthdays Without Pressure, says parents are throwing over-the-top birthday parties for several reasons. “For one thing, people have more disposable income these days,” Printz says. “But some people have suggested that this has more to do with guilt. Many families have both parents working, and parents just feel guilty. They worry that they don’t spend enough time with their kids.” Printz offers a third explanation for the trend: “We live in a culture that involves competitive parenting,” she says. “It happens in all other events, too—weddings, bar mitzvahs, proms.”

Birthdays Without Pressure offers advice for parents who want to scale back and take a more simplistic approach to birthday parties. Perhaps the most inviting suggestion is for parents to create a family ritual for celebrating birthdays. The idea is that by celebrating this important life-cycle event with only the most relevant people in the child’s life, the child learns about gratitude and simplicity. A birthday need not be an opportunity for parents to teach their children to be self-involved and egocentric, it should not necessitate that hundreds (or thousands) of dollars be spent, nor should it be a reason to compete with friends.

Thinking about a themed birthday party can, however, offer parents and children an opportunity to work together toward a common goal, planning and organizing a party that is specific to the child’s interests. Sally Strebel, CEO of, says planning a themed party encourages children to think creatively about games and activities that tie in to the theme. Strebel also suggests that party planners can be beneficial. “They have contact with professionals in the special event industry to make planning easier, safer, and more relaxing for the parents,” Strebel says. “And having a party planner can enable parents to participate in the festivities and enjoy their child’s birthday.”

As all parents know, time of year is highly relevant when it comes to birthdays. If you happen to have a child with a summer birthday, chances are you feel more pressure to have a large, outdoor, themed event. Pirate parties with backyard treasure hunts, princess parties with a high-noon tea—the possibilities for outdoor summer parties are literally endless. Here’s an idea for a simple, inexpensive summer birthday party that can work for boys or girls, with many or few guests:

Beachside Birthday
The dollar store is a great place to find beach-themed party favors (bubbles, floaties, sunglasses, leis), as well as supplies for the party itself. Kids can be entertained for hours with a sand table (or tub of sand), water table (or bucket of water), sprinkler, blow-up pool, sidewalk chalk, and a few beach balls. Suit up your guests with goggles from the dollar store and have the kids bob for plastic ocean creatures in the “water table.” Or, hand the kids leis, play beach music, and help them choreograph their own group dance routine. Coolers filled with lemonade will keep everyone hydrated and avoid the expense of individual boxes of drinks. And many parents—even those with less expertise in the kitchen—can decorate a homemade cake with beach balls or cocktail umbrellas!

But let’s not forget about the park. Summer is all about parks, and kids never tire of fun in the summer sun swinging, climbing juggle gyms, and playing a rowdy game of kickball. Need a theme? It’s a Park-and-Play Party!

Want more themed party ideas? Take these great ideas out for a spin: